Dale and Sunny: An East Oaklander and His Horse

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Dale Johnson stands next to his horse, Sunny. The two of them are above us, at the top of a flight of steps in downtown Oakland. They're lit majestically and while Sunny looks out above us, Dale is turned slightly away, wearing shades with his hands tucked in his pants. You can see the building behind them is boarded up against possible protests or riots.
Dale Johnson stands next to his horse, Sunny. The two of them are above us, at the top of a flight of steps in downtown Oakland. They're lit majestically and while Sunny looks out above us, Dale is turned slightly away, wearing shades with his hands tucked in his pants. You can see the building behind them is boarded up against possible protests or riots. (Beth LaBerge)

Dale Johnson grew up in East Oakland with stories of his grandfather riding horses on a Texas ranch. For years horses were just part of a family story. But one day, a pair of polo boots caught Dale's eye and he was brought back into the world of equestrians.

A profile shot of Dale Johnson Jr. on his horse, Sunny, playing polo.
A profile shot of Dale Johnson on his horse, Sunny, playing polo. (Dale Johnson)

Now Dale and his horse, Sunny, are deep in the horseback community. Last fall for Halloween, they joined other riders, like Brianna Noble, to ride through San Francisco's Sunnydale Projects dressed up like Wakandans. Dale and Sunny were also part of the Ride Out to Vote campaign last November.

This week on Rightnowish, Dale and I talk about what it means to be  a polo player and an equestrian in the face of race and class stereotypes that come with being an African American man from East Oakland.

Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Dale Johnson.

DALE: My grandfather was born around 1917-1918. His name was Chester Johnson, he grew up on a ranch just north of Houston, called High Prairie. And that was actually a Black settlement that my family founded shortly after Juneteenth with another family called the McAddams Family. And basically they went into cattle ranching. Fast forward his life, he ended up kind of coming to Oakland in the war and the Great Migration, like a lot of other Black families did. But, you know, when I was growing up, he would talk about horses and it was very much in his blood and in his roots.

So in the back of my mind, there were always horses there... Fast forward in my life. I was on a business trip in Buenos Aires, and I walk into a shop and I look up and I see a pretty badass pair of boots on the top shelf. And I asked a shopkeep like, ‘Are those for polo?’ And he's like, yeah, those are polo boots. And I was like, man, those boots are bad. So I decided after that, I was going to take up polo.

PEN: You're a bigger dude. When I think of horseback riding for some reason I think it jockeys and like smaller people like my size, right? You're pretty built...

DALE: When you look at a lot of the polo world, people tend to skew a little more lean. I think my body type, having played a variety of sports and being a bit of an athlete and a weight lifter in the past, is a little bit different than what you typically see on the polo field, but it's not impossible or it's not like it hasn't happened before.

PEN: And then the other aspect of it is that you're an African American man.

DALE: You know, when I play the sport, I always want to be known as a really good player, a decent player, a gentleman on the field. But I am a Black polo player.

You'll see Black polo players throughout the country, but the numbers and the representation from the Black community or the African American community in general is obviously not as large. But I can say, that not at one point in this particular community have I ever felt un-welcomed or not included. That is not always the case, though. I've heard in different parts of the equestrian world, especially with Black women, maybe in the Hunter Jumper world or the dressage world, that's not always the case for them.

You do feel the weight of being a Black equestrian and then also representing the polo community and then representing my own family, you think about the weight of what that means.

PEN: You have a horse. What's the horse's name? What does he or she look like?

DALE: My horse's name is Sunny. And Sunny is a mare — a mare is a female horse. In polo, mares are the preferred horse of choice. Sunny is a red roan or strawberry roan, which means that she has kind of reddish brown hair and with, like, flakes of white inside of her. And she's mine and I love her. And she's a good friend. She's got a lot of personality.

A common nickname for people is like Side-eye Sunny [ Pen laughs] so Sunny, Side-eye Sunny, yes. And I would say she's an alpha mare. You know, She'll just let you know, like, if she doesn't want to work that day, she'll throw her head. She can buck. She'll heal back. She'll do a bunch of things. So, you know, sometimes Sunny and I often have to work to kind of get her to feel like, OK, Sunny, I've given you twenty three hours to be a horse. You just need to do this one hour. You need to just kind of work with me here.

But on the ground, and that means when I'm not actually on her back, she's the sweetest thing. She loves cookies, she loves to hug, she loves following me around and all those things. You know, Sunny just doesn't like to work, you know? [laughter]

I think the biggest thing that I love about it is. The happiness that I bring so many other people. It doesn't matter what walk of life, if they see Sunny and I walking around the property where I keep her — she stays on a winery in Half Moon Bay — everybody just seems to get excited. And that for me, brings me so much joy that I, you know...this guy from Oakland can just bring joy just to any person.

PEN: How does it feel being up there on top of a horse? Like it has to be regal. You have little kids going looking at you, like, how does that feel?

DALE: You know, there is something about being on a horse that makes you sit a little bit taller. You sit a little bit prouder. When you're on that horse you want to be extra careful. For the people on the ground. You want to be extra careful for the horse. And so I think what it inspires in the mind when you're riding is — is not only am I this proud person that people are looking up to, but it also means that here is this huge responsibility that I have.

PEN: Any tidbit of advice that you would give to a young person looking to get into the polo world?

DALE: The number one thing that a person wants to do when they play polo is they want to be a great rider. I mean, let's not beat around the bush, it's an expensive sport. It's an expensive hobby and it's not impossible. But one has to look at those numbers and say, ‘OK, well, how do I hack this?’ And so that's what I did. I learned to ride, and effectively I brought my average costs down…There are tons of people who need horses exercised. Like I've even offered my horse from people from time to time when I'm traveling, to people I know are pretty competent.

I think a lot of people, when they think of polo, they think the Prince of Wales, they think Veuve Clicquot, they think Ralph Lauren and all of those things for, you know, people who maybe aren't typically from a certain set, those things could be daunting, right?

So my thing is, don't be daunted by those ivory towers. Go in... you deserve to be there. Don't be afraid to walk into these different spaces.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.